- The History of a Myth
“Over the centuries, the West has been the repository of the dreams of an astonishing variety of people—and it is has been on the long, dusty roads of the West that those dreams have crisscrossed and collided, transforming all who traveled along them, rewarding some while disappointing others.” 1 This idea of competing visions and their resulting impact on the history of the American West shapes the latest documentary project by Ken Burns. The West tells in twelve-and-a-half hours over nine episodes the story of conquest. As Patricia Nelson Limerick argued in her 1987 book, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, conquest recognizes the competition for legitimacy—in the case of western history, “the right to claim for oneself and sometimes for one’s group the status of legitimate beneficiary of Western resources.” 2 Guiding this quest for either imagined or actual abundant resources is the dream of self-fulfillment, of achieving that which people believed would be impossible in another place. What makes The West significant to scholars not just in western history but in American studies more generally is that it recognizes the significance of visions, dreams, and most appropriately myths in shaping human action and culture. Warts and all, The West examines the ramifications of following those dreams, of believing in a mythic West.
In the late 1990s, myth in is a dirty word in American studies. Forever linked in the minds of American studies scholars with the 1950s myth-symbol [End Page 385] school represented by Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx, myth connotes the idea of a single “American culture,” embodying such intangibles as the values, meanings, and goals of a unified, homogeneous group of people. Works such as Smith’s Virgin Land and Marx’s The Machine in the Garden adopted an interdisciplinary methodological approach considered at the time revolutionary by combining humanistic and social science techniques to uncover the meaning of the West to, and the impact of technology on, a larger American culture. This emphasis on a mental construction of culture, often uncovered by studying privileged works of literature, drew fire from later scholars. In 1972, Bruce Kuklick argued in American Quarterly that if cultural beliefs existed only in the mind and were independent of the people who thought them, then observers of culture would have no means to evaluate these beliefs. Without experiential evidence, scholars could not know authoritatively that certain beliefs existed. Kuklick instead proposed that culture was grounded in observable social interactions and behavior. This idea of the social construction of culture has had profound effects on American studies, moving its interdisciplinary analysis away from the privileged works of the upper tiers of American society to vernacular studies of the diverse populations located within the United States. The resulting multicultural emphasis in American studies today has been possible because scholars rejected the myth-symbol school’s focus on a single American culture. 3
A similar transformation has swept through western American history. The dreaded idea of the “mythic West” has dogged western historians since Frederick Jackson Turner presented his now famous paper at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Turner articulated in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” what had been a growing consensus among many middle-class Americans in the late nineteenth century, that there was a distinctive American identity separate from and independent of its European roots. Turner traced this essential “Americanness” to the availability of land on the frontier. Through the process of constant regeneration on the frontier, people shed their European cultural baggage and developed distinctive qualities which Turner labeled as “American,” such as individualism and a predisposition for democratic institutions. The mythic West was the place where rugged “Americans,” identifiably different from their European predecessors, had the resources and the opportunity to better their lives and spread American cultural and political institutions to what the transformed Americans considered were less fortunate individuals. A slew of historical studies [End Page 386...